Kate Burns walked slowly up Whiterock Road, head bowed in contemplation. It was early morning, just gone half past six, but unable to sleep, Kate had decided to drag her reluctant ass out of bed and go for a walk. Perhaps the pure fresh mountain air would help clear away the cobwebs clogging her mind; maybe even help solve the problem that had kept her awake most of the night. Because of the early hour there were few people out and about this cool, bright Monday morning in May. Kate sighed and watched bemused as a plume of mist escaped from her mouth dissipate in the frosty atmosphere. It looked as if she was smoking an invisible cigarette.
She was in a dilemma; didn’t know whom to turn to for advice. Thoughts churned around in her mind making her feel inadequate as she tried to sort out the tangled web. What to do, she inwardly lamented, her thoughts dodging this way and that in the fog that was her brain. Before she realised how far she had travelled, she had climbed the loney and now found herself at the foot of Black Mountain that loomed over west Belfast.
Standing for some moments she drank in the majestic sight of the mountain; delighted as always by its rugged beauty which alone was worth the long hike to behold. Not so far for her to travel she admitted, but she was aware that people came from other parts of the city to witness its beauty at first hand and clamber up its great heights where you could have a fantastic view over Belfast City and the lough. Tourists from all over the country raved about. She was lucky to live so close, she mused. The war had put a stop to all that. Folk were afraid to chance up here in case of stray bombs. Why? Why then didn’t she come here more often she asked her bewildered brain? So far the war was between Germany and England. S o far it hadn’t sent any bombs anywhere near Ireland. Still it was said better to be safe than sorry. The Yanks had to of course show their interest, taking phoyo and were loud in their admiration of such beauty.
There was no reason why she should not take her joy of these lovely views. She knew the area involved like the back of her hand. Why not seek to relax and enjoy the tranquillity that now enveloped her like a soft mantle; beginning to ease the tension that tied her shoulders in knots and play soothingly on her nerve ends. In her younger days, she had often played with school friends up here in the grassy area known locally as Hatchet Field; so named because of its unusual shape. The area surrounding it was covered by large patches of dense coarse bracken and the rich autumn colours were breathtaking .
Like most beauty spots one became too used to looking at them every day. Locals took the scenic views too much for granted when they lived nearby and, the more fortunate folk could even see fantastic scenery from their bedroom windows as the seasons changed, each one bringing its own wonderful transformation. It would be heaven to awake to such views each morning.
The every day pressures of life that troubled them, made folk forget just how uplifting these everlasting beauty spots could really be; with jobs and money uppermost on ones’ minds, people were inclined to forget the country’s natural beauty. The hillside was deserted at this time of the morning and looking about for a boulder that looked clean enough to sit on, Kate chose one near where crystal clear water cascaded down the mountain side and formed a pool to join one of the rivers below. Possibly the Forth River or the Glencairn, she imagined, geography not being high on her list of priorities. With an annoyed tut tut she used her handkerchief to wipe some of the morning dew of the boulder and perched tentatively on its edge. Next time she came up she would make sure to bring an old newspaper or something to sit on.
Leaning forward to let the water trickle over her hand an involuntary gasp escaped her lips as its icy coldness took her unawares, sending a shiver sliding down her spine as if someone had walked over her grave. Instinctively, she glanced over in the direction of the cemetery beyond where the boy’s home was situated. She wondered about that. Was the home still an orphanage? She had never heard otherwise. Nevertheless she was sure the ghosts of the past still mingled with those of Milltown Cemetery; it was rumoured that both places were haunted.
The sudden shock of the water to her system brought her abruptly out of her dark musing and a smile teased the corner of her lips as she became really aware of the tranquillity of her surroundings. The chirping of birds sent her attention to the small bushes that were scattered about the foot of the mountain and to her delight as though in her honour, a brightly coloured chaffinch, perched on a low bush filled the air with its chirping before suddenly taking off into the blue sky. Her eyes followed its up and down flight until it took a dive out of sight into one of the distant bushes where it was probably nesting. Feeling much calmer now : more in control of her emotions she settled down to sift through her troubled mind.
She still lived at home with her father and mother, quite happily in fact, on Rockmount Road and until Saturday night marriage, was the furthest thing from her mind. She was content with the direction her life was heading. Work in the Falls Road library was very interesting. She met many different people including some famous authors who did book signings and readings there. All in all she hadn’t much to complain about. With a good family and nice friends and a job that she enjoyed what more could a girl ask for?
Then suddenly, out of the blue one of those close friends had dropped a bombshell. She had received quite a jolt when Aiden McCluskey had proposed to her on Saturday night gone. Marriage had never once crossed her mind. For the last four months she had been dating Aiden, who lived across the Falls Road on St James’s Drive that ran along side St James’s Road and Donegal Road. They had so many common interests, liked the same things and were comfortable in each others company. It was no wonder that they had become very close. He was the ideal companion but to be truthful, she had never once considered him anything other than just a good friend, but it seemed that he had other ideas. They went out two, sometimes three times a week and now with hindsight, she realised that she had probably given him the wrong idea. He thought that she cared for him.
And she did! She quickly corrected herself. As a friend! Never as a possible husband. Even so, to her way of thinking he was rushing things. Four months wasn’t long enough to become certain how one truly felt to make a life-long commitment. Sure it wasn’t? Especially since there was no hot passion in their friendship. Unlike some of her friends, she had no worries about going to confession. There had been no long kissing, no passionate embraces, not even close dancing to feel guilty about. Was her mother right? Was Aiden just a very good catholic boy. A boy who could keep his emotions in control? Bewildered, she continued to question her feelings but got no satisfactory answers. It was true that Aiden had made few demands off her. Just the odd kiss that was anything but passionate and gave no inkling whatsoever as to how he felt about her.
He was great company, there was no doubt about that. Kind and attentive with a quick sense of humour that often had her in stitches, as he mimicked politicians and celebrities. He was great at imitating Paisley and McGuinness. She readily admitted that she was happy when out with him but she wasn’t sure that was enough. Marriage was a big undertaking and she for one, needed more time to think about it. A lot more time to be positive that she cared enough for Aiden to want to spend the rest of her life with him. At the same time, she would be loath to break off their relationship. She puffed out her cheeks as a deep sigh escaped her lips. Now she was being selfish. She couldn’t string him along just to have a boyfriend to go out with like the rest of her friends. Give him hope and then later let him down. No! She couldn’t do that to him, it wasn’t in her nature. It would be too cruel; he was such a good man; could have his pick of the girls. She had considered herself lucky when he had first asked her out on a date.
In her early teens she hadn’t paid much attention to boys. Didn’t understand why her friends started to act funny when in their company. However, once she reached eighteen, when she started going to dances with her mates to learn ballroom dancing she had noticed that some boys were quite attractive indeed. And she hadn’t been short of admirers; in fact she had dated many lads, but just on a casual kiss and run basis. Aiden was the only one to last longer than a few outings, but that was because they had so much in common. Not because they couldn’t bear to be apart. There was no great passion between them. Therefore she was convinced that he was not the one for her. He was more like a brother to her than an admirer or suitor.
Perhaps that was why she felt so close to him. Always there when she needed someone to talk to or do something for her; someone she could depend on not to let her down. Indeed she relied on him more than she cared to admit, but as a prospective husband? No! She shook her head vigorously at the very idea of it. No, that was a different kettle of fish altogether. She had never thought on him in that way. Never.
Her head drooped in despair. She was starting to get upset at the very idea of it. Why, oh why, had he to go and spoil things between them. Declaring his undying 0love and wanting to take their relationship a step further by getting engaged; even promising marriage some time in the not too distant future as if
Her reaction must have been written all over her face like an open book to show just how wrong he was. She was so taken aback at his proposal she simply gawped at him, shocked to the core at the very idea. He reeled back, a slightly confused look on his face, apparently at a loss for words at her expression. Dismay, anger and the flash of another emotion that she couldn’t quite put her finger on but which caused her uneasiness. He was shaking as he fought for control of his emotions. Breathless, she actually watched him fight for and gain control of his features. They smoothed out as if by magic. Then it was as if she had imagined the whole works. It was as if he hadn’t spoken at all. He looked so normal again that for a moment she doubted her own eyes. Surely she must have imagined that he had lost control so drastically. Aiden never lost control; he was always so sure of himself. However, for a moment there he had appeared a different person, so he had and, she had been startled and a shade frightened by the change in him.
A matter of seconds passed and he was his usual self again. He drew back and with a sickly smile apologised at taking her unawares. He assured her not to feel compelled to answer right away; that he had just wanted to run it past her; to see how she felt about it. Urging her to take as long as she liked to consider his proposal. He earnestly promised not to try to persuade her into anything she didn’t want to do. Said he’d wait as long as it took for her to make up her mind.
Nevertheless, his shoulders had a definite slump as, with a peck on the cheek he had left her at her door, declining to come in for his usual cup of tea and a chat with her parents. Going inside, Kate had silently bypassed the living room door and climbed the stairs. She was in no mood to face her parents at that moment. Just for a few minutes there she had seen a side to Aiden McCluskey that she hadn’t known exist. If only she had someone to confide in; but she didn’t. It would be hopeless to ask her parents for advice. Her mother thought Aiden was a wonderful lad: that the sun rose and set on him. As for her father, he was forever throwing hints that it was time she thought about her future and that she could do a lot worse than Aiden McCluskey. Her father would be only too delighted to accept Aiden as his son-in-law. However, both her parents’ views would be biased. They were too anxious to see her settled down into married life. This was something she had to make up her own mind about. To decide if she was ready for marriage, and she didn’t think she was. Far from it in fact. She still had a lot of living to do.
She didn’t blame her father for wanting to see her married and settled like her older sister, Joan. But she and Joan were different in so many ways. Joan would be the first to admit that all she had ever wanted was to marry a nice fellow and have a family. Whereas Kate would like to see a bit more of life, enjoy herself before pledging herself to marriage. Maybe even see a bit of the world if that were possible. Was that too much to ask for? During the times when there was a lull in the library she would get her head stuck in a travel book, enraptured at the sight of the exotic places she would love to visit. She was fascinated by some of the countries she read about.
If only Aiden had held his tongue she fretted, who knew how things would have panned out. He could very well have grown on her and that would have solved all her problems . . . and her parents also. But not yet. Once an engagement ring was on her finger that would be it, no turning back. As a couple Aiden would surely expect her to share her plans and ambitions with him and she didn’t know what she wanted; wasn’t ready for babies and nappies and all that entailed. What a mess, she thought, as she puffed out her cheeks and gave out an exasperated sigh.
Of course Aiden was a few years older than her; had a job as a steel erector. Due to his ability to read and fully understand arrangement drawings he was soon promoted to site foreman with a healthy wage and good prospects; the answer to her parents, or indeed, any parents’ prayers. He was ready for marriage and to start a family and was in a position to do so. He obviously had assumed that she thought likewise. He was wrong. So wrong.
Tommy Burns had high hopes of Aiden popping the question; thought he would be a fine catch for his Kate. He and his wife Molly had both, since leaving school, worked in the Blackstaff Mill. Tommy as a fitter and Molly in the weaving shop. They had scrimped and saved to keep their daughters out of the mills, in an effort to give them a better chance in life than they had. It was no mean feat that Kate and Joan were educated and had worthwhile jobs, Joan was a primary school teacher in St.Comgalls School down on Divis Street. Kate was a librarian in the Falls Road library. They had their parents to thank for that.
Tommy was one of the old fashion brigade and had been delighted when Fergus Connelly, determined to do everything by the book, had taken him to one side and formally requested the hand of his eldest daughter in marriage. Fergus and Joan were obviously in love and Joe was only too delighted to give his blessing and welcome Fergus into the family. The couple now had a ten month old son, Danny. A bonny child whom Tommy and his wife idolised. But Tommy still fretted about his Kate; worried that she was wasting her time hanging out with the girls and lads and going to dances at weekends. They would all meet up at the corner of Whiterock Road where it joined the Falls Road for a bit of innocent craic before drifting off in small separate groups.
He was only too aware that she sought and enjoyed their company; loved mixing with the crowd; had made friends with them. Indeed a lot of them were former school mates. Although she had known Aiden most of her life; seen him about the district from time to time, it was at the corner of the Whiterock Road that they had first really met. One evening he had stopped to speak to the lads and was introduced to her. He had dropped by often after that and had eventually worked up enough courage to ask her out. He was also, she now realised, slowly weaning her away from these friends.
It annoyed Kate that her father had such a low opinion of the crowd whose company she cherished. He turned a blind eye to the fact that a lot of these girls and boys were unemployed through no fault of their own. They just couldn’t get a job and, it wasn’t for the want of trying. They would be only too willing to take any kind of work offered to earn some money. To make a better life for themselves.
Tommy himself hadn’t really anything against these lads. He was proud how they managed to stay on the straight and narrow considering the circumstances. He hadn’t a bad word to say about any of them, but he would dearly love to see his Kate settled down before he and his wife passed away. The friends whom he, drank with each Saturday night in the Rock Bar ridiculed this idea. “Catch yourself on man. If you keep your nose clean you’ll be good for another twenty years, so you will.” they shouted, raising their pints and saying “Give the wee girl a break, for God’s sake.” But Tommy didn’t agree. Like most of them, he had been born and reared on the Falls Road in Belfast, but unlike them, in the late seventies when the troubles were at their height he had foolishly got caught up in the wrong company Thankfully, before it was too late his father had found out and had given him a good ticking off and talked some sense into him. For that he was eternally grateful.
He had learned his lesson, but he knew only too well that one could go out to the pictures or for a meal, and not come back. He had lost a couple of good friends that way back in those bad old days. And it still happened! The troubles were still grumbling away in the background of daily life, although peace was being sought in all quarters of the city. There were those who still rebelled and one never knew when trouble would occasionally break out. When some fools set it off again with a careless word or action, and factions from both sides would rear up in anger. Bad but not as frightening as in the sixties, or were they so used to it flaring up in different quarters they took it as normal? Blaming the soldiers who were trying to protect them. Indeed, it was more likely to happen here in Belfast where sectarian trouble was always a constant threat.
Kate knew nothing of her father’s troubled youth. She only knew that he had sheltered them whenever possible from the fallout of the troubles while they were growing up and would now be happy to see her safely married to a Catholic lad.
Feeling tired and defeated by all the juggling that was going on in her mind, she rose slowly to her feet, no further forward. Still undecided she cast a last sad lingering look around the peaceful hillside before setting off down the track towards the loney and home.